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Mali Villagers gather

“We don’t want the elephants to disappear, because if the elephants disappear, it means the environment is no longer good for humans,” Malian villager.

This statement has stayed with me throughout the work of this project, and particularly as I travel between Mali and the UK, engaging with approaches to combat ecosystem degradation in both countries. It was in reply to a question I asked at the first village I visited in the Gourma. I was traveling with the field team in their search for elephants . The team would travel through an area asking local villagers whether there were elephants nearby, whether elephants ever visited this area, when and for how long, and a long and animated discussion in local languages would ensue.

We were traveling through the south of the Gourma, and it was clear that elephants sometimes raided crops from fields that were cleared on their migration route. They would also occasionally break into grain stores and help themselves to the harvest. Given the enormous effort involved in coaxing a harvest from this dry and unpredictable environment, I wondered what the local people’s attitude to the elephants was, and so asked “what would they think if the elephants disappeared?”.

“We don’t want the elephants to disappear, because if the elephants disappear, it means the environment is no longer good for humans”, was the reply.

This statement struck me with force because it is so counter to the attitude that I am used to hearing in “developed” countries where nature tends to be regarded as a cost, an expensive luxury, for which we have to make sacrifices. In northern countries, our first thought would be that eliminating elephants would mean more resources for us.

That was right at the beginning of the project. Since then our research has shown that while eliminating elephants might mean more resources for humans in the short term, the effect will be short-lived as it misses the long-term impact.

Photo by Carlton Ward

The forces threatening the future of elephants in the Gourma are the same as those that are making it more and more difficult for humans to live in this area. Those peoples living close to the land understand this intuitively, but systems such as ours that allow natural resources to be exploited for short-term gain without thought for the costs of that exploitation and where they fall, inevitably lead to a degraded environment that is less able to support life.

This attitude reflects a mind-set that regards the land as primary: it sees the health of individuals and society as impossible without the health of the natural support systems. It stands in contrast to that of a fossil-fuel powered society that has lost a sense of the “web of life” and seeks to pick and choose which bits of it are most useful for turning a profit, and which bits can be disposed of.

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